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the-walking-dead-zombie-season-6I am not one of the 17 million who watch The Walking Dead, because the last time I was interested in zombies was when I was 17 and went to the midnight screening of George Romero’s cult film Night of the Living Dead. In that film, the divide between humans and flesh-eating zombies is clear. But it’s interesting that one of the premises of The Walking Dead is that it’s hard to figure out who is more dangerous – the zombies, or the humans who have to survive among them. And that seems an apt metaphor for the political landscape today. American liberals are terribly worried about the rightward turn since the last election. They view Trump-supporters as zombies of sorts. But they should start worrying about themselves.

134305Let’s start with how the over-emphasis on presidential power is absolutely fine for liberals and Democrats as long as one of theirs is in office, but not so good otherwise. And vice versa. Did you love it when Obama signed his executive orders (and he signed more than any of the three presidents before him did), but you’re not so happy with Trump’s capacity to do so? These orders were different in substance, of course, but in both instances they are scary signs of the breakdown of democratic structure.  Same thing with gaming the Supreme Court, btw, which underlies presidential selections for liberals. There are so many cases received by the Supreme Court where the Right-wing judges want to turn the case over to the legislature. Liberal Supreme Court judges don’t tend to argue this way, because as the country shifts ever more to the right (even during the Obama years, from the top down), liberal judges know they have their work cut out for them. As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, the over-dependence on the judiciary in a democracy is a sign of the breakdown of the legislative branch. AKA the breakdown of democracy. The fight against corporate power has mostly played out in the courts, and it’s no coincidence that just recently the Koch Brothers helped to write legislation to limit class-action suits. It’s not like the Right hasn’t noticed that liberals have for decades sought out the judicial loophole to the breakdown of the legislative branch. What could possibly go wrong…?

You might have loved fetishizing the President when Obama was in power. It was certainly easy for liberals to fetishize the symbolism of the first black American president (at the expense of looking soberly at his actions). But those eight years and the fetishization of Bill Clinton at an earlier time (not to mention that of Ronald Reagan, who has been invoked as a model by Republicans and, inexplicably, increasingly by Democrats, including Obama) helped to legitimate the current fetishization of Trump by his “base.” (Feel the Bern, anyone? Even, as with Sanders, when the political discourse is the most sane this country has had in almost a century, liberals insist on the manic transformation of a politician into a savior .)

vertical-zombiesThe other day I listened to a podcast about journalism in the age of Trump, and heard liberals talk about this country’s evident turn toward facism. It is no longer easy for smart liberals to ignore the fact that Trump  (or what he symptomizes) did not arise overnight, no longer easy to ignore the suffering taking place among the 95% in the U.S., many of whom are among the 63 million who voted for Trump. But it’s still verboten to use the actual word capitalism, so even the most politically overt speaker (a prominent magazine editor) could only refer to the more genteel stand-ins for the word capitalism – currently “de-industrialization” and “globalization.” As if such conditions are inevitable natural events that humans could not have opposed. But such overt discourse would puncture the superficially repressed fact that most if not all American liberals actually believe in the delusional dream of neoliberalism. How otherwise to explain the reluctance to even use the word capitalism, or to even refer to the inevitability of capitalism’s very dependence on globalization and de-industrialization?

nightofthelivingdead4-100415Speaking of which, Derrida had extremely interesting views on the term globalization, a term he refused in favor of mondialisation. I first read about this in his interview about 9/11, published in 2003 in the book Philosophy in a time of Terror. But for an excellent synopsis of his refusal of the term, read the first four paragraphs on this link 

You’d have to say that with his attention to such differences, Derrida was the anti-liberal. Personally, I’ve always been more afraid of liberals than of the Right. Because liberals, they walk among us. And they seem so nice.

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In the run-don’t-walk cultural category of my new short-form recommendation postings is the BBC One 6-part miniseries, River. (available in the U.S. on Netflix.)

Since I no longer write long-form blog posts, it’s hard to describe succinctly how brilliant and important this series is. It’s an addictively compelling whodunit with layers of social, economic, racial, historical, and psychical significance. The sad thing is that I cannot imagine such a series being written, produced, or acted like this in the U.S.

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I’m beginning to think this country is just too “young” to produce such work. Not that the U.S. is actually a young country. But its deepest and longest history went the way of native population extermination-which this country is barely willing to acknowledge in its school curricula, its public – or private – discourses. And with that repression, I believe, goes nuance and exquisite subtlety in representation. Now, nuance and exquisite subtlety are just plain old entertaining (for many of us). But they’re also essential  to digging ourselves out of the political mire that we in the U.S. are now drowning in. This moment of political demagoguery and economic exploitation cannot be comprehended in simple terms. Don’t be fooled by consolingly ironic tweets to the contrary.

The unearthing of repression, and the American amnesia around its founding violence, are reasons why Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, LaRose, is also so important. Both River and LaRose, worlds apart in many ways, are similar in many regards. They understand that events are never absent of psychical histories. And that the past will always return – for good or bad, depending on how we deal with it.

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Postscript, 10/6/16- The wheels of my unconscious grind exceedingly slowly. I just realized that the temporal structures of River and LaRosa are very similar- always through a montage of past and present. River can make more clear- with visual devices at its advantage- that, as Alain Resnais pointed out in regard to what critics called possibly the first use of flashbacks in film, all memories and “flashbacks” actually exist in the present. But LaRose has its own literary way of bringing the past directly into the present, through distinctly Native American storytelling traditions.

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Another recommendation: The Argonauts, the highly-lauded memoir by Maggie Nelson. I have yet to read anything that better captures the un-identifiable nature of sexuality. For me, this brilliant page-turner is perplexingly marred by the way that Nelson raises straw men in order to summarily strike down various theoretical arguments about sexuality and subjectivity – Freudian and other – single-quote by single-quote. But it’s still such an important book.

https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/argonauts

** FILE ** In this July 11, 2008 photo, a giant glacier is seen making its way to the waters of Croaker Bay on Devon Island. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast most of it could be gone in 30 years, according to a new report to be released Friday, April 3, 2009. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward, File)

A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.

Just what is it that makes today’s museums so different, so appealing? Notes on a Museum of Resistance

 

xmas 18It’s that time of year…

xmas 25when ghosts return…

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xmas 24Guy Debord turns over in his grave…

xmas 2xmas 3xmas 10Rosa Luxemburg wonders just what it is we don’t understand…

xmas 16xmas 23Jacques Derrida would like us to dwell on insidious terminologies…

xmas 20xmas 26xmas 21Sylvia Plath decries the plague of toadstools overnight…

xmas 14xmas 15xmas 8xmas 19and Virginia Woolf reminds us…

xmas 12xmas 17…that you cannot find peace by avoiding life…

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Violence haunts. It haunts all but those who are psychically defended against it – defended against it by fear, by the pleasurable intensity of vested interest, or by the emotional short-circuiting that is psychosis.

But more often than not, and certainly more often than cultural representations would like us to believe, the emotions precipitated by violence are complex and individuated, even for the basic neurotic personality. Violence is primal and simple, but also lousy with politics and discourse, and with repressed suffering.

Yet the more complex everyday violence becomes – rife with globalized power imbalances – the more stripped down and un-nuanced does American film-acting style become in American narrative films that directly involve violence. Instead of acting, we get acting-out. Often in such films, spectators are offered the comforts of being able to identify with a surprisingly deadened style of acting. Of course, it may have something to do with the reductive, one-note nature of the scripts of most American films. Or with the amount of botox that gets syringed in Los Angeles. But that desire to not have the face be an emotional, affective register is not simply motivated by a youth-crazy consumer culture. Nothing happens for a single reason.

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In the last few years, it’s become evident that if you’re looking for subtle, layered, nuanced acting style, you have to look beyond American actors. This phenomenon generated a long Atlantic article a while back, though not a very enlightening one.

Recently, I watched the first two films in the Pusher trilogy. I was in the midst of moving home and studio, and unmoored from my digital connections, I watched them on my i-pad, able to pause and fast-forward when I wasn’t able to cope with the brutality of the violence it represents. I hope to watch the third film in just the same way, in spite of being re-connected to my domestic digital empire. The digital  fast-forward mechanism allows me to see thumb-nail images at whatever speed I choose, and it’s only in that tiny form that I can tolerate the most violent seconds.

But in the midst of all that violence are the faces. Actor’s faces that register several emotions at once. Faces that manage to register both machismo and fear at the same time. Humiliation and brutal impassiveness. Pleasure, panic, horror, redemption, and resignation – all at once. Such is the face of actor Mads Mikkelsen in the last moments of the last scene of the second Pusher film- With Blood on My Hands- from which these gifs are drawn.

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And in taking in the simultaneous affective registers that Americans tend to think of as mutually exclusive, the spectator is thrown into an identificatory conundrum. Something we should be thrown into more often these days, when politicians, journalists, and media producers and editors encourage reductive thinking about violence.

In part, this much-needed identificatory conundrum depends on the kind of remarkable actors you find in The Pusher trilogy. But of course, those actors depend on scripts written and funded by those who see subtlety, nuance, and contradiction as more than pesky obstructions to the bottom line. Without that attitude, it’s like being stuck in an endless gif loop…

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Installation view of Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” Venice Biennale, Polish Pavilion, 2015. C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska.

This year, the little that I experienced of the Venice Biennale came through social and digital media. An intriguing post on my Facebook feed drew me to the project produced for the Polish pavilion. I searched for the project online and read about it on a few sites. There aren’t that many art projects of subtlety and complexity that travel and translate well through social media, but this project seems to be one, and it made me ponder why.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Performance view.

The project is Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” by the artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz. In brief, the project entails the recent staging by the artists of a production of an 1858 Polish “national” opera – Halka – in a village in Haiti in which reside descendants of the Polish soldiers who, brought by Napoleon to put down the anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti, are thought to have deserted Napoleon’s troops to fight alongside the Haitians who defeated the French in 1803.

In the curator’s catalogue essay, Moskalewicz has written a fascinating account of the histories of the opera and its place in the Polish imagination, and of the histories and mythologies that have grown up around the possible role of the Polish soldiers in the revolutionary event in Haiti. The account is fascinating because of the subtle intricacies of Moskalewicz’s argument, which she develops as a backdrop to the work, but also because Moskalewicz chose to write very little about the project she selected to curate for the pavilion. Even in an official video, she doesn’t really explain the project to spectators. The table of contents in the catalogue for the exhibition indicates that there are interviews with the artists and some statements by the participants, as well as a few other historical texts. But Moskalewicz devotes the great majority of her text to an analysis of the national mythologies that underpin the project; for example, the national identity role that the 1858 opera – stylistically retardataire even at its arrival – has persisted in playing for so many decades.

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Traditional presentation of the opera Halka, composed by Stanisław Moniuszko to a libretto written by Włodzimierz Wolski. First performed in 1848.

I don’t know why Moskalewicz chose to address the project this way. Perhaps she felt that the project could represent itself. Inversely, maybe she felt that the project needed a historical backdrop in order to represent itself. In any case, her choice creates a kind of respectful space around the project. By sticking largely to questions of how histories play out in the national imagination of the present, she allows the work to take on its separate role as art. She neither inflates nor underestimates its political and cultural role. Ultimately, she makes a case for questioning “nation” in general, which is a way of looking at the larger picture of an exhibition based, as she points out, on the very idea of the nation.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

But why does the project itself succeed in traveling so well in such a condensed way through social media? There’s no question that being present in the space of the exhibition must have produced a different affective spectatorial experience of the work than reading about it and viewing images. But it’s unique when a work conveys the depth of its layered meanings through a several-sentence description and a few photos, unique when it can work at opposite scales without losing subtlety, and while still resonating and provoking thought.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

Some of it must have to do with the sharp contrasts that the parameters of the project create. The inclusion of indigeneous and non-indigenous participants, for example (the opera is sung by professional Polish opera singers). But even there, the issues involved are complex. Because some of the indigenous Haitian participants in the project are descendents of the Polish soldiers who are thought to have aligned themselves with the revolt of the colonial Haitian subjects in 1803. And the insertion into that contemporary context of an opera that has been popularly and stubbornly accorded the status of Polish national representation – when Polish “nationhood” has been so historically fraught in general, and with a narrative about class disparity, no less – foregrounds how troubled the notion of the nation is once the colonizer’s ships hit the water, or soldiers cross national land boundaries or, for that matter, once money travels along digital signals. Even the word itself, indigenous, is ambiguous. It doesn’t depend on a definitive temporality of origin.

If we’re going to be subject to the dispersal of art by digital media, would that many other projects would travel this well. In this instance it’s especially important that the work travels well, because it’s discourse applies to so many contexts, while being intensely specific to one.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

In the “overture” to her essay, Moskalewicz sets the scene by describing the anxiety felt by the artists and production team at the start of the filming of the project, due to what looked like impending rain that would have ruined the scheduled performance and filming. I wonder whether filming the project through the chaos of rain wouldn’t have added a fortuitous dimension to the project, given its allusions to the traumas of imperial and colonial legacies – in Haiti, in Poland, and elsewhere. Because the performative event that is just history, not art, is usually subject to chaos.